Employing ‘Home Movie’ Strategies to Interrogate Musical Change
BENJAMIN J. HARBERT with PETER IAN CRAWFORD
Peter Ian Crawford is a social anthropologist at the Arctic University of Norway who has written extensively on visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking. His volume Film as Ethnography (Manchester University Press, 1992), co-edited with David Turton, is a classic text for many ethnomusicologists working critically in film. Crawford’s short Mola’a Revisited: Reef Panpipes (2017) is part of his Reef Islands Ethnographic Film Series in the Solomon Islands, which began in 1996, following requests from local communities. The first film of this series, Alfred Melotu: The Funeral of a Paramount Chief (2002), is set on an island that is part of the Reef Islands in Temotu Province of the Solomons. The film traces urgent debates over plans to revive traditional cultural elements among the Aiwoo-speaking people of Ngasinue/Fenualoa following the death of Alfred Melotu, their Paramount Chief. As stated in the text at the outset of this unexpected follow-up film, a return trip in 2005 revealed to Crawford that globalization had quickly moved into many aspects of everyday life, including music. The short Mola’a Revisited is a product of Crawford’s impulse to capture cultural change, responding to a moment in time that he knew might not come again, presenting the new practices as well as how they caught him off guard.
I spoke to Crawford about Mola’a Revisited to get a sense of his choices as a filmmaker and how his work in film and print ethnography relate. The film’s lack of verbal explanation and its tendency to let musical events speak for themselves begged plenty of questions about ambiguity and its usefulness. But I was particularly interested in a shift in cinematographic style that happens at the eight-minute mark (of this 18-minute film). All of a sudden, a familial searching, perhaps aimless camera—reminiscent of home movies—transforms into a veteran ethnomusicologist’s lens, capturing techniques, rhythms, and relationships in the flow of an impromptu performance.
During our discussion, we fleshed out the promise of home movie approaches, understood as a distinct style of shooting that many ethnomusicologists avoid once they develop skills. Our conversation may pair well with Jeffrey K. Ruoff’s article “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde,” listed in the references below. I spoke to Crawford in October 2022 after having a longer unrecorded discussion in August earlier that year.
Could you describe the setup you used for Mola’a Revisited and explain why you used that?
In this long-term ethnographic film project, I’ve been very often, sometimes using another cameraman than myself, but during this particular visit, I was doing all this shooting myself, leaving aside the few seconds that my canoe driver shot. So it was a simple setup with a Sony DSR-PD150. And usually with the mounted mic on the top. So the vast majority of shots in this particular film were recorded with that setup. I didn’t use any external microphones. I did have a Zoom recorder with me and used it a few times. But it turned out in the editing that there was no need for it because I found the sound was okay. It was better to keep the sound as it was.
Why was it better to use the sound as it was?
If I had used the audio from the Zoom recorder, we would have had difficulties. Part of the sound would have been much better than the other sound, which might have become confusing. People would start wondering, “Well, why didn’t you use that perfect sound all through?” And I didn’t do that because I didn’t have it throughout. That was a strategic decision to have more or less the same sound quality throughout the film.
When you’re shooting with one camera, that gives you certain limitations, but it also presents a certain kind of film. Can you talk about your decision to use a camera? What are the implications of just having one camera, and how can you take advantage of that?
This was one of the field visits where I was utterly alone. I had to rely on myself with cameras and sound recorders. So that was the main reason, but the other was also a question of how much equipment to carry with me. I wanted to keep it light for that for precisely those reasons. Traveling around in the Solomons can be challenging. What is easy is that you usually have loads of people to help you carry things. But getting in and out of canoes in rather stormy weather, you need a lot of watertight Pelican cases, and I had one which I exclusively used for the camera and essential parts of the equipment. I wanted to limit the amount of equipment and make it as lightweight as possible.
If I had to redo it today, I might have considered shooting it on an iPhone, using an external sound recording device, or on a camcorder. But I got one of the standard kits from our visual anthropology program and took it with me. I left out some of the heavy stuff, such as the tripod. Instead, I use the monopod, which I often prefer to a tripod because if you practice a bit, it’s almost as good as using a tripod. And it’s much more mobile if you’re working independently. Even if you’ve just got a few little kids to help you carry stuff, it’s much more manageable. We’re talking about six-, seven-, eight-year-old boys and girls here.
I’d like to shift to the editing and how you put the film together. You bring us into the film with a reasonably brief text description that relates the film to your more extensive project. It ends with a question, “or was that what it was?” referring to the possibility that the music we are about to hear might be a new tradition but also might not be. What is the benefit of putting the audience on unstable ground with a question instead of setting things up with an explanatory statement?
First of all, the final editing was done by Sebastian Lowe in consultation with me. Sebastian is based in New Zealand, doing a Ph.D. on his own ethnomusicological project. He was one of my master’s students some years ago. We very much agreed on the editing of the main shots. But what you’re asking about now, this question at the end, was there for several reasons. Film embraces ambiguities. My question was genuine. I was genuinely curious if this was a new tradition, if it would last or if it was just a fad that would last for maybe a few months or a few years. I’d never experienced it before. There is traditional pan piping in the Solomon Islands, both the kind of panpipes that you blow and the ones you beat like they do in this film. But the only place I had seen it until this happened was in the far west of the Solomon Islands. We’re talking about 1500 kilometers away, bordering on Papua New Guinea in the province of Choiseul, where they have traditional pipes played in precisely the same way—except they don’t use PVC pipes. They use bamboo. And they don’t use cheap Chinese flip-flops. They carve out something from a very light wood, a kind of balsa wood.
So it’s an honest question. I was wondering whether this was a new tradition that was emerging or not. I wasn’t sure where they got it from. I never got a clear answer. But it had spread throughout the country. It wasn’t just in the Reef Islands where I was filming. I saw it in the capital of Honiara, where it was probably initiated, inspired by pipe players from the Choiseul province. But I also know that it had spread to almost all provinces in the Solomons.
I knew that from Honiara, the capital, because when I went to the hardware store and asked them, they said they had sold all their PVC pipes. They couldn’t provide enough pipes for building and construction. That was because of this trend. People from all over the country were buying these pipes. It’s still an ambiguous question. When I visited just a few years later, it had more or less died out in the Reef Islands, but it was still there. But people weren’t so excited about it. During this visit, however, people were so enthusiastic that everybody wanted to play it. Each little village had its own band. And maybe it’s going to exist permanently as one among many forms of instruments that they use. It will probably supplement their traditional instruments, which are slit drums, but my question is genuine.
The question lingers because instead of going into a talking head, authoritatively explaining what you have just described, we move pretty quickly into what I would call the “backstage,” the preparation for the event. And we don’t get the music, aside from the little sample at the beginning, in the wide shot. We don’t get the performance until midway through the film—the eight-minute mark. Unceremoniously, one person starts playing, and the whole thing begins. And so without the context of understanding, for instance, the hardware store, the shifts in the spread from here to there, and the different venues, we don’t know the situation of the people—where they live or their reason for gathering at the moment. We’re so used to documentaries with this perfunctory explanation to orient the viewer. So what’s the value in the viewer being unprepared, just lingering in your first-person camera for half of the film? What sort of value is there in not knowing what’s going on?
It’s always a matter of balance. I left out some explanations to serve the film in a balanced way. Print is better for presenting background information and ethnomusicological significance. I do that in writing elsewhere. For the film, I wanted to leave it open and ambiguous. I wanted the viewer to get the same surprising experience of this new music as I did myself. That is the main idea behind the film, and it is reflected in the way it was shot and the way it was edited: to emulate my surprise at this.
This wasn’t the very first time I saw it. But this was a special occasion. I was visiting the family of a very close friend, a paramount chief, who passed away when we did our first main shoot in 1996. It was a courtesy visit. I didn’t even ask them to play this music, but they were just used to us whenever we visited throughout this project. They thought we wanted to film what they call “kastom” or “traditional” culture, which would be ritual ceremonies and the accompanying music. So they just assumed that I would also want to film something traditional. But to me, this was something completely new. What do we mean when we say “traditional” and “traditional music”? Is there such a thing as traditional music? It’s not custom in that Pacific sense of “kastom.” It’s not a tradition in that sense. That’s what the film is trying to let you experience. But realize that these are far too complex conceptual discussions that you’d need to address in writing or lecturing.
I’d like to drill into some of your shooting strategies. It’s very much a first-person film. We understand that we watch through your positionality. We know that through people looking directly into the camera, the long takes, the exploratory zooms and pans, the shaky camera, and the direct address. I’d say it’s more of a home video style than a cinéma vérité approach. And yet, you’re not an amateur. This was not the first time you had held a camera. There are some moments where you zoom in to one of the children playing, a close-up of someone blowing on the bamboo. There is beautiful framing, a shot with two players and the dancers behind them. And you see this coordinated motion in a single frame. So as you were shooting, what were you thinking?
Everything was spur-of-the-moment. It wasn’t an organized shoot. We hadn’t even planned that. They didn’t know that I was coming until very late, so even their performances were spur-of-the-moment. I had no time to plan the shots because I needed to figure out what would happen. I didn’t ask, “Oh, can you do that again?” to get it from a different angle, for example. In that sense, you’re quite right. It has that feel of a home movie in it. It also feels like a home movie because I know the family well. So I am, in a sense, part of the family. There’s no need to introduce myself to them. They all knew who I was. I’ve known some of them all their life. So while shooting, I was exploring, needing to get the shots and therefore having to move in, zoom in, pan, etcetera.
If I could have planned more carefully, it would have become a different kind of film. It would have been more slick and more technically perfect. If I’d known they would play that music, I would have planned to record separate sound, for example. I had to improvise and intuitively try to do the best I could. I felt entirely at home with these people I’ve known. I’ve stayed with them. But as for the shooting, I was very much on my own. Second by second, I had to think, “What am I going to do next?” “What is going to happen next?” As they started performing, one of the main characters—the son of that paramount chief—explained to me, “Now we’re going to play this and that.” That helped a bit. And by then, I knew what the setup was. Once they had set up the pipes, I also started to film slightly differently, which probably is also apparent in the film. I began to know what was going on.
The shooting ratio is close to 1:3. I don’t have much material. And yet I felt, “Wow, this new music is interesting. I should do something with this.” I started to think I needed an ending to an eventual film, so I shot the farewell sequence in which their music is also involved. That was a normal thing to do. They sing this song called helaro, which means “farewell” in the Aiwoo language.
You say that it would have been more slick if everyone had more time for planning. I understand what you mean style-wise, but what would have been lost if everyone had more preparation time? What do you think the film wouldn’t have been able to achieve?
It would have lost the closeness and intimacy because it would have added some distancing. I like your idea about “home movies” because that is what we see in home videos. In some cases, they have terrible technical qualities. But what you see in many family videos is this kind of intimacy that is very difficult to achieve.
My close friend and colleague Nasko Kriznar, a visual anthropologist in Slovenia, did some work on a Slovenian minority living across the border in Austria. He did a project some years ago in which he filmed in a way that is quite similar. It is very home-movie-like, and I don’t think he ever released the film, but I’ve watched much of the footage with him. I told him it was marvelous because it had this home-movie sense of intimacy that was only achieved because he was Slovenian. He knew many of the families he was filming and was entirely on his own like I was. So although it was a completely different setup, it had some similarities.
Some visual anthropologists discuss this. For example, Gary Kildea, a close friend of mine, the Australian film director. In some of his films, you get a sense of intimacy, like you’re part of the family. It turns into a kind of home movie in some shots (although I’ll never match his excellence as a cameraman or director). He’s a fully-fledged filmmaker, in a way that I’m not because I’m also an anthropologist. His film Celso and Cora (1983) is a portrait of a young couple living in the slums of Manila in the Philippines. Some of it is what we call the quintessential observational film. But some of the shots in that film have that home-movie feel to them. Because that’s what they are, he’s filming within the home, in this case, in a slum. It’s an eight-square-meter dwelling that he’s filming in, so there’s not very much space either. That gives it that kind of intimacy because of the room but also because of the way that he is shooting. And he’s even shooting with much heavier equipment in 1984 than I was in this film and had a separate sound recordist working with him, Rowan, a local woman.
While many of Jean Rouch’s films are full of shaky shots, they don’t necessarily give that sense of a home movie. In many of his films, the shaky camera serves a different purpose. The camera is shaky because what he is filming means he can’t film without shaking the camera, for example, dances or ritual ceremonies. Even one of his most well-known films, The Mad Masters [Les maîtres fous] (1955), is full of shaky shots because he’s in a very unstable context. That adds a dimension that I wouldn’t call “home movie-like” but more represents the shakiness of the event.
It’s an element, not necessarily a flaw.
Definitely. But having said that, of course, I’m not trying to teach our students to use shaky cameras!
It’s interesting to think about motion and carry that attention into the structure of your film. Aside from the immobile text, we get shots that form an ABAC structure. You have a wide shot of a performance that seems more formal. Then we move into what we’ve been calling the “home movie,” the exploratory motion of the camera that shifts when we get to the music. Then we pop back out to a wider shot of the farewell song. And then the C section would be the boat and leaving. Why structure it this way?
Well, the editor Sebastian Lowe and I completely agreed. This seemed to be the most simple and effective way to edit the film given the limited material that I had—not only referring to the shooting ratio, but also the diversity of the shots. I didn’t have many close-ups. I didn’t have many medium shots. When I started filming, I wasn’t thinking about the need for a diversity of shots. I didn’t have them because I didn’t know what I was going into. It wasn’t until the event started to play out that I started thinking, “I need these close-ups. I need these medium shots.”
It suddenly makes the editing easier. We tried various alternatives, but this seemed to be the most efficient way and what worked best for us. Apart from the A, B, and C, it’s also the fact that when I use extreme close-ups, they happen to be the moments of the most musical action. It was important from a cinematographic perspective, but it’s also essential from a musicological perspective—to try and capture the details of how they play these instruments. To me, it was mind-boggling: the speed with which these little kids could use flip-flops, the guy doing the bass with the mouth, and the guy using the drum that breaks. I’m trying to show something about the Solomons and a kind of bricoleur living, that you have to make do with what you have. Nothing’s perfect. If it breaks, you repair it as well as you can. It was the only solution with the material that we had available.
What were some of the alternative structures you tried?
The main alternative was adding more context to explain stuff. We tried that and felt it became incredibly dull because there was too much verbal explication. We considered using a voiceover instead of inter-titles. And decided not to. I didn’t want the voiceover to interfere, or for that matter, to have subtitling interfere too much with what was going on. What people were saying wasn’t that important, so we only subtitled a few things to give some sense of my relationship with them more than anything else. We made a more extended 24-minute version but found that that didn’t work as well. It didn’t gain anything. We took the “less is more” approach.
After seeing the PVC tubes and understanding that this was a new musical practice, I marveled at the fluency with which the kids played these newly-constructed instruments. It was remarkable to see something that you’re presenting as a new thing, yet they seem well-worn as an ensemble. What do you feel your film says about this question of tradition, change, newness, and adaptation? Or maybe the question isn’t “what does it say” but perhaps what does it reveal? What does it pose?
The main anthropological question challenges our notions of what we mean when we say “tradition,” not only as anthropologists but also as people themselves, the emic perspective of what is meant by “tradition.” In this particular part of the world, the South Pacific, it is particularly relevant due to this indigenous notion of “kastom,” which is found throughout Melanesia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea have the same term kastom in Solomon Pijin which is derived from the English word “custom.” The simple way—unless I give a sort of two or three lectures on it—I usually say this is what they mean by “traditional culture.” To go beyond just the simplistic idea of “traditional culture,” you need two, three, or four lectures to discuss it because it is very complex. It is part of the context—and I don’t have time to explain very much in this film—but it does appear in the film. We’re talking about two neighboring groups. One is Melanesian. The other is Polynesian. They’ve been living side by side for a couple of centuries, but they speak two distinct languages, the Polynesian, Pileni Polynesian, and Aiwoo, a Melanesian language. These two languages are very different, but now the groups have intermarried and use Solomon Pijin, a lingua franca of the country. What has struck me in these discussions—and I try to add to the film—is the tension between tradition, how tradition emerges, and how practices are transformed over the years. What has struck me most is that tradition, or kastom, is not necessarily consensual.
Our film project revealed that although we have these two separate groups, they’ve been inspired by one another over the years. At low tide, you can walk across to the neighboring Polynesian Island. They used to have two entirely different traditions in that they had pretty different languages, performance styles, ways of playing music, and ceremonies. I know this from putting together three of our main films on age-set rituals in the two respective neighboring communities that haven’t been at all made for a Western audience. Editing the films, I discovered elements of some of their ceremonies imported from just across there and vice versa. That is represented in this film when he explains, “Now we’re going to play one of their songs,” referring to that group intermarried with his family from this nearby island. About 40% of the people in this film are of Polynesian origin and married into the paramount chief’s family.
You went back five years after filming this and found that the “tradition”—the practice you filmed—had vanished. It had been replaced with island reggae played through mobile phones and small radios. If you were to create a film that followed that return, what would that look like?
I’ll answer that by referring to some footage from this visit where they use these PVC pipes that we haven’t used yet. The traditional use of music is a split drum and a few other items to accompany singing and dancing. When the church arrived at the end of the 19th Century, hymn singing was brought in. To a certain extent, it was accompanied by whatever musical instruments were available, like a piano or guitar. So, what I expected when I first saw this new phenomenon was that it would be used in traditional ceremonies or the churches—that it would be used to accompany hymn singing at church services and also be used in the context of ceremonies.
What surprised me most was when we filmed the closing day at the only school (which goes up to sixth grade) on the main island, Fenualoa. They also had a musical performance. Initially, it was a couple of hymns. Then it was a couple of traditional songs. And then they started playing reggae and pop music on these PVC pipes with flip-flops. But the next time I visited, they didn’t. From a music perspective, it worried me that they no longer bother playing the music themselves. They’re just listening to the same crap as the rest of the world. They had lost their pride in performing themselves and are giving it to the same pop stars that we are listening to worldwide. It’s much easier, but they all had mobile phones by that time. The mobile reception is excellent, even as far as the Reef Islands. It’s affecting local music production. People don’t perform as much themselves anymore, is my feeling. I’ll get back and see what’s happening next.
Crawford, Peter, Rolf Scott, and Trygve Tollefsen, directors. 2022 . Alfred Melotu: The Funeral of a Paramount Chief. SOT Film. 45 minutes.
Crawford, Peter, and David Turton, eds. 1992. Film as Ethnography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kildea, Gary, director. 1983. Celso and Cora: A Manila Story. Creative Development Fund of the Australian Film Commission. 1 hr., 49 minutes.
Rouch, Jean, director. 1955. The Mad Masters [Les maîtres fous]. Les Films de la Pléiade. 36 minutes.
Ruoff, Jeffrey K. 1991. “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World.” Cinema Journal 30 (3): 6–28.
Ben Harbert joined the music faculty at Georgetown University after receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of American Music Documentary: Five Case Studies of Ciné-Ethnomusicology (Wesleyan University Press, 2018) and director of Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2013). He is the Co-Founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Audiovisual Ethnomusicology. Harbert has been a teaching fellow at University of California, Los Angeles and a lecturer at Pomona College as well as a resident artist at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. Before returning to academia, he directed the guitar, percussion and music theory programs at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
Peter I. Crawford is an anthropologist, publisher (www.intervention.dk) and filmmaker. He has been an active member of The Nordic Anthropological Film Association (NAFA) since the late 1970s and is the general secretary and chairman of NAFA’s annual film selection committee. In the 1990s he started the long-term Reef Islands Ethnographic Film Project in the Solomon Islands, where he lived from 1995 to 1998, together with the Danish anthropologist, Jens Pinholt.
Peter I. Crawford is professor of visual anthropology and head of the research group EA:RTH at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway. He has written extensively on visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking, his first major publication being Film as ethnography (Manchester University Press, 1992), edited with David Turton, and has wide experience in teaching the subject both theoretically and practically. He has been involved specifically in film-based ethnomusicological research in Aotearoa New Zealand and Sardinia.